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With the birth of John, God continues to fulfill what he promised in Luke 1:5-25. As the promise of God moves ahead, God shows he will bring his word to pass and teaches some personal lessons as well. The most important lesson is that even the pious must learn to wait on God's timing and ways.
As in Luke 1:39-56, where there was a meeting (1:39-45) and then a hymn (1:46-56), John's birth is followed by a hymn. In each case the hymn details the significance of the previous event. The difference is that Mary's hymn focused on how God deals with his people, while Zechariah's hymn will highlight the main players who bring such blessing on humanity.
When Elizabeth bears a son, all those around her hear that the Lord had shown her great mercy. Though these events are cosmic in their reach, they involve the divinity's personal touch. God has shown his mercy and magnified it to Elizabeth (compare Gen 19:19; 24:12; 40:14; 47:29; Ruth 1:8; 4:13). Those who had shared her pain now rejoice with her. God's mercy expresses itself in concrete, loving action.
According to custom, the circumcision and naming of the child follow. Though children were often named at birth in the Old Testament (Gen 25:25-26; 29:32-35), it appears that sometimes such naming was associated with circumcision. The presence of the parents at circumcision shows them as pious, law-abiding Jews (Gen 21:4; Lev 12:3).
Many features of the naming of John are surprising. The crowd fully expects custom to be followed. They wish the child to be named Zechariah. Children were often named after fathers or grandfathers (1 Maccabees 1:1-2; Josephus Life 15; Antiquities 14.1.3 10; 20.9.1 197; Jubilees 11:15; Fitzmyer 1981:380). Elizabeth rejects the crowd's desire and goes her own way. The name she chooses is the one the angel gave Zechariah in verse 13. The text is silent on how she knew this name, but that detail is unimportant. The choice of the surprising name indicates that a major lesson of obedience has been learned. And as noted above, when God names a child, that child is significant in his plan.
The protest of the crowd shows that they are unaware of what God is doing. Surely the father of the house will not sanction this breaking of custom. So they motion to Zechariah to find out what the name of the child should be. Their signing to Zechariah indicates that he is both deaf and mute. The reply comes on a wooden tablet covered with wax. By repeating the name his wife gave, Zechariah echoes the instructions of the angel, not the crowd and custom. He goes the way of God and amazes his neighbors.
His obedience yields additional reward: his tongue is loosed immediately and judgment ends. Just as the angel promised in Luke 1:20, the temporary situation of silence ends with the fulfillment of God's word. The point of the linkage is not to be missed: believe and know that God fulfills his promises.
The event has three unusual features: (1) the old have given birth, (2) the child has a strange name, and (3) Zechariah's handicap is taken away, whereupon he launches into praise about what God is doing. Such remarkable events cause the crowd to fear and reflect. Something different and surprising is happening, things worth remembering and considering. So they wonder, "What then is this child going to be?" Luke wants his readers to consider the same question. The story's close indicates that the Lord's hand was with him. Luke is saying, in effect, "Be assured, Theophilus or any other reader of my account, that God was in these most unusual events." When God's hand is mentioned, usually an opportunity for deliverance is around the corner (Ex 13:3; 15:6; Is 5:12; 26:11; 66:14; Ps 28:5; 80:17; 1 Kings 18:46; 1 Chron 28:19; Ezek 1:3, 3:14, 22; Marshall 1978:90; Stein 1992:98). And Zechariah, in his silence, has learned to believe God.
With John, God has prepared the way for his promise. God's ways were not traditional or what had been culturally expected, but they were his ways nonetheless. Sometimes going God's way means going against the grain of our culture.